How the fighting in Southeast Asia transformed a curious young man into a fiercely dedicated pilot.
- By Roger Warner
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
THROUGHOUT HIS CHILDHOOD IN LAOS, he lived in a thatched hut with a dirt floor, outside the Hmong village of Muong Ngat, about 10 miles from the Vietnamese border. He never saw cars or trucks, but he did see his first airplanes high overhead as a boy, in 1953 and 1954. Some days he saw hundreds of them, as the French and their U.S. allies flew supplies to a besieged French army garrison in the Dienbienphu Valley. But to a Hmong child like Vang Bee, the things he saw in the waning days of French colonial control over Indochina seemed to belong to another world.
After the fall of Dienbienphu, the French left Indochina, and a 1954 agreement partitioned it along political lines into North and South Vietnam. It wasn’t long before the United States began to fill the regional power vacuum. That’s when Vang Bee first saw an aircraft up close—a U.S. Sikorsky H-34 helicopter about the size of a house, he recalls. His entire village watched in fear as it descended slowly and landed noisily in a cloud of dust. When they saw men emerging from the beast, the villagers relaxed. Not long after that, small fixed-wing airplanes became a common sight.
By 1960 a civil war had broken out in Laos, and nations on both sides of the cold war sent support to the factions they favored. The Chinese, Soviets, and North Vietnamese communists backed the Pathet Lao; the Hmong were among several groups opposing the North Vietnamese. To counter the communists in northeast Laos, operatives of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and their allies in the government of Thailand contacted the highest-ranking Hmong officer in the Laotian army: Vang Pao. To support this charismatic warrior, the CIA and the Thais sent in the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit, or PARU, a Thai special-operations force whose officers had been through U.S. Army Ranger training. The PARU wore uniforms without insignias, spoke the Lao language, and blended in as if they were native Laotians.
A three-way alliance arose: Vang Pao recruited and led a Hmong guerrilla force that would grow to a 30,000-man multi-ethnic irregular army. The PARU provided trainers, radio operators, and field advisors for local Hmong commanders. The CIA provided money, food, surplus World War II-era weapons, a few dozen officers, and transportation in the form of Air America, a contract airline the agency secretly owned.
Early in this proxy war, the people of Vang Bee’s village moved several times to escape North Vietnamese attacks. U.S. aircraft relocated tribespeople and dropped rice and supplies. According to Vang Bee, the elders appreciated the flights, which saved them long treks on foot, but soon came to take them for granted. For ambitious young people like him, however, aviation opened a world of opportunities and ideas. Now a U.S. resident, he recalls thinking: “Why the people can make the airplane fly in the air? A piece of metal, they made like a house, they put the engine in it. The airplane come from the technology. A lot of young Laotian people, they want to work close to the situation like that. I said, ‘I want to know how to fly. I want to know.’ ”
In 1965, Vang Bee and his family moved to Long Tieng, Vang Pao’s headquarters, southwest of Laos’ Plain of Jars, named for the large and mysterious ancient stone vessels found there. By this time Vang Bee was a square-jawed young man serving in the new alliance’s army. He was assigned to work as an announcer at a radio station, broadcasting news to the many ethnic groups in the north, but he did not like the job much, partly because the pay was low. When word went out that there were slots available for a dozen literate Hmong to take pilot training, Vang Bee was ready to apply, but his boss told him he was needed at the radio station and would just have to wait.
The idea to train Hmong tribesman to fly—to yank them out of the Stone Age and plunge them into the 20th century—originated with a CIA paramilitary officer named Bill Lair, the founder of the Thai PARU and the day-to-day leader of the CIA’s hill tribe operation in Laos. Lair believed that when it came to the wars in Southeast Asia, the United States should provide training and modest assistance, but beyond that, should stick to a supporting role. He believed that the fewer Americans in Asia, the more self-reliant the local people would become. This was not the prevailing view in the U.S. government, which had already started sending troops to support South Vietnam and warplanes throughout the region, including the skies over Laos. Lair, who had parachute training and worked with pilots every day, was determined to train indigenous Asians in as many forms of warfare as he could and equip them to fight. In 1965 he visited a CIA supply depot on Okinawa and spotted a couple of dusty Piper Cubs in a warehouse. Lair arranged for the airplanes to be shipped to his base in Udorn Thani, Thailand. And then, without notifying his CIA superiors, he opened a flight school, complete with an English language course, for a dozen newly recruited smart young Hmong. The students stayed in a safe house on the edge of a grassy airstrip to the west of the town of Nong Khai, near the Mekong river. The flight instructor was Lair’s PARU pilot.
By 1966 the first tribesmen were soloing in the Cubs. At the same time, a U.S. Air Force program at Udorn Thani was training Laotian military pilots in North American T-28D Trojans. The program, known as Water Pump, had specially selected U.S. personnel from a U.S. Air Force Air Commando unit at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
In some ways the T-28 was better suited than jets to supporting ground troops in combat in Southeast Asia: The Trojan could fly low and slow, maneuver through valleys, and loiter over targets. Just under 30 feet long and about 40 feet in wingspan, the airplane had been developed as a two-seat trainer after World War II. With huge flaps, tricycle landing gear, and a nine-cylinder, 1,425-horsepower Wright Cyclone engine, the T-28 was practical and versatile. But the official Laotian military, which was dominated by Lao lowlanders who had long disliked hill tribes like the Hmong, opposed allowing the Hmong into the T-28 program, and some Americans opposed the idea too. Teaching Iron Age tribesmen to become combat pilots was absurd, they said.
At Lair’s request, the two most promising Hmong from the Piper Cub flight school were promoted to the T-28 program. After they completed their training, one of them died on his second combat flight when he flew into a cloud and hit a mountain. The other, named Ly Lue, had been the star of his Water Pump class. Undaunted by the combination of mountains and monsoon weather, Ly Lue flew his T-28 to Long Tieng. The dirt strip there sat in a bowl 3,000 feet above sea level, with a couple of steep karst outcroppings at one end of the runway and clouds and fog obscuring the mountain ridges during the rainy season. Once in Long Tieng, Ly Lue loaded his T-28 with 500-pound bombs and dared his wingman, a lowland Lao lieutenant named Houmpheng Insixiengmay, to follow. The two airplanes took off, barely clearing the ridgelines. The brief golden age of the Hmong pilots had begun.
When the next wave of tribesmen were sent to Thailand for flight training, Vang Bee finally got his chance. Meanwhile, Ly Lue, in constant demand by ground commanders, was becoming a hero to his people. A CIA case officer, known as “Linus,” with the tribal program remembers, “The Hmong loved to have aircraft working around them. But when a Hmong T-28 arrived on the scene, the excitement was electric. Those T-28 pilots did more to raise the fighting morale of the Hmong than all of the other factors combined. We could have American fast movers [jets] working around our positions and there were oohs and aahs, but when a couple of Hmong T-28s showed up on the scene, the Hmong ground-pounders could hardly contain themselves.”
Like many of the tribal pilots who followed him, Ly Lue became exceptionally skilled at delivering ordnance. He flew missions every day, and he dropped his bombs from treetop level, a practice that, while increasing his accuracy, allowed the underside of his airplane to be damaged by shrapnel from his own bombs. Legends of his feats, some unlikely, abounded. One story says that a North Vietnamese PT-76 tank once drove onto open ground on the Plain of Jars and that Ly Lue dropped a single bomb through the tank’s open turret.
Most sorties from Long Tieng took an hour or less, and then Ly Lue would land at Long Tieng, re-arm, and go up again. Other pilots averaged three to five short missions a day, but Ly Lue flew five to eight, and occasionally 10.
It was a rate that couldn’t be sustained. On July 11, 1969, with 720 missions in his logbook, Ly Lue was working a target at low altitude when a 12.7-mm anti-aircraft gun stayed on him all the way into the ground. During the funeral ceremony at Long Tieng, Vang Pao wept and U.S. officers paid respect to the pilot many considered the best in Southeast Asia. A new unofficial motto for the Hmong pilots began to circulate: Fly until you die.
In Udorn Thani, meanwhile, Vang Bee was learning the principles of aviation in the classroom. (Years later, he provides a succinct summary of what he learned about the creation of lift: “The wind heavier than the airplane.”) The U.S. instructors with the Water Pump program were never quite sure how aeronautical science blended with spiritual beliefs in their students’ minds. The call sign for all the Laotian T-28 pilots, ethnic Lao as well as Hmong, was “Chaophakhao,” meaning Lord White Buddha, a reference to a mystical sect of monks who wore white rather than the traditional saffron or brown robes. At his graduation, the Thai instructor pilots followed Buddhist tradition and doused Vang Bee with a pail of water to cleanse his soul. Back in Long Tieng, his parents followed Hmong religious traditions, lighting incense and praying to the spirits for his safety every morning when he left the house.
Vang Bee began flying out of Long Tieng in the dry season toward the end of 1970, after the Hmong had captured the Plain of Jars, the largest piece of non-mountainous real estate for miles around. In the rainy season the communists took the Plain of Jars back, and in the following dry season the Hmong would retake it. As a wingman, Vang Bee armed his T-28 with whatever ordnance his flight leader thought was needed: 500-pound bombs for enemy bunkers; bombs with fuze extenders to create air bursts near troops in the open, napalm for deep bunkers or caves, white-phosphorous marking rockets, and .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. After his first few hundred missions, he helped develop new tactics, such as using two-airplane teams for taking out enemy machine gun positions. Coordinating by radio, he and another pilot would come in from opposite directions, the first marking the site with rockets, the second hitting it seconds later with bombs. The teams flew during daylight hours, with little or no navigation equipment.
At night Vang Bee lived well by Hmong standards. His official salary, plus a dollar-a-mission bonus from the CIA, plus unofficial payments from Vang Pao, added up to about $200 a month, and that, along with the status that came with being a pilot, made him a catch to the women of his tribe. “The life of the fighter pilot very good for the single man,” he recalls with a laugh. “More money, eat enough, play enough, die no matter.”
Some Hmong tribesmen flew with U.S. forward air controllers in unarmed Cessna O-1 spotter airplanes, serving as observers—“backseaters”—or as liaisons and translators. The FACs, known as Ravens because of their radio call sign, coordinated with a U.S. airborne command center and directed tactical strikes flown by U.S. jets based in Thailand and on aircraft carriers (see “Ravens of Long Tieng,” Oct./Nov. 1998). By this point in the war, the North Vietnamese had abandoned guerrilla tactics and instead were installing large, fixed troop concentrations in Laos. The U.S. Air Force bombed the troops with B-52s. If the giant bombers were at one end of the Vietnam War air-power spectrum, the Hmong air force of six to 10 little T-28s was at the other. The Hmong pilots flew local missions under the direct command of Vang Pao, who often radioed orders to his pilots from an unarmed aircraft high above the battlefield. The T-28s, it was said, were Vang Pao’s artillery.
But the North Vietnamese had real artillery to use in Laos, along with two army divisions. As dusk fell on December 31, 1971, North Vietnamese troops opened up on Vang Pao’s positions with a tremendous barrage around the Plain of Jars and followed it up with assaults by waves of ground troops. The shells came from Soviet-made 130-mm long-range artillery, and they caught the Hmong-Thai-U.S. alliance by surprise. After the North Vietnamese captured the Plain of Jars yet again, they began an artillery assault on Long Tieng. The T-28s were evacuated, and although they eventually returned, the maintenance facilities that serviced them were permanently withdrawn to safer territory. After that, Long Tieng lost its importance as a base. AC-47 gunships, B-52s, and other formidable aircraft kept the air war going, but Hmong morale sank. The tribesmen didn’t feel in charge of their own war anymore.
Vang Bee says he and the other Hmong pilots knew the war was lost when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. The fighting in Laos dragged on, though, and when a Hmong T-28 flight leader was shot down and killed, Vang Bee replaced him. Fly until you die. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords by the United States and both North and South Vietnam in January 1973 resulted in a cease-fire, and the U.S. Air Force stopped flying combat missions. Local skirmishing continued, though, and during one engagement, Vang Bee was shot down near the North Vietnamese border, not far from the village where he had been born. Unhurt, he was picked up by an Air America helicopter. After that, he did most of his flying at the controls of Vang Pao’s personal aircraft, a twin-engine Beech Baron. By then, 36 tribesmen had gone through the T-28 program, and about half had survived. They even began to diversify, a few becoming C-47 co-pilots, a few others copiloting H-34 helicopters.
In May 1975, after South Vietnam and Cambodia fell, it was Laos’ turn. An evacuation of Long Tieng began, with thousands of tribespeople gathering on the runway in hopes of a ride to Thailand—the last pro-Western country in Southeast Asia. An Air America C-130 helped in the evacuation, and Vang Bee made five round trips in the six-seat Beech Baron; on one of them, Vang Pao’s daughter gave birth in the cabin as the flight crossed the Mekong River. All the tribal pilots who survived to the end of the war made it to Thailand, and most of them subsequently immigrated to the United States.
The Americans who had known the Hmong pilots believed that the T-28 program had succeeded, even though the covert war as a whole had not. The Hmong, they say, would have done even better if they had had more education to help them coordinate with U.S. pilots and better understand instrument navigation. But they still performed far beyond expectations. Their dedication was, according to former Raven Karl Polifka, “unsurpassed by any combat pilot anywhere.” He adds, “They seemed to have no fear, although I do think they had a vision of early mortality.” Another Raven, Darrel Cavanaugh, says, “In close, they were damned accurate. They liked to get down there and mix it up with the bad guys.” Bill Lair, long retired from the CIA, remembers, “I never saw any better bombing runs in my life.” He still believes that the methods used to train the Hmong to fly would work anywhere in the world. Tribal people, says Lair, “can do amazing things, if they are motivated and given the chance.”
Vang Bee, now living in North Carolina, is more ambivalent. He wanted to win the war and would have liked to see the U.S. extend its support. He also lost many of his best friends and believes he is lucky to have survived the war without any serious wounds. By his own reckoning, he flew about 1,000 combat missions and made another 400-odd flights in the unarmed Beech Baron. He didn’t keep a flight log, but all the available evidence suggests that his numbers are in the ballpark. Two other Hmong pilots who survived the war and at least two Lao pilots make equally plausible claims of having flown more than 1,000 combat missions in T-28s.
The surviving dozen-plus tribal pilots are scattered throughout the United States. None still fly, though they have inspired a few Hmong of the younger generation to take up aviation. Hmong communities such as those in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin share information through a Web site (www.hmongnet.org), and a foundation named for Vang Pao has been established.
Vang Bee now calls himself Bee Vang, following the Western tradition of putting clan name last and given name first. One of his sons is a pre-med college student, and another plans to become a computer engineer. Bee Vang has worked as a factory machine operator. He drives the family minivan, and he has occasionally flown as an airline passenger. That’s as close as he gets to the aircraft that fascinated him as a young man in Laos—the machines that changed his life and, for better and worse, the fate of his people.